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The events culminating in the assassination of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, are known as the Lincoln conspiracy. This conspiracy concerns the murderous machinations of its chief instigator, Shakespearean actor and Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth. His band of followers agreed to his scheme to rid the Union of all of its leaders in one fell swoop. On 14 April 1865, at 10:15 PM, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were all slated to die at the hands of Booth and his accomplices, but as is the case for the best-laid schemes of mice and men, it all went astray.
The Lincoln conspiracy began as a plot to kidnap the president shortly after his second inauguration. Originally, Booth plotted to kidnap Lincoln, hold him captive in the Southern capitol of Richmond, and exchange him for Confederate soldiers held captive in various Union prisons. The plan was foiled and soon the conspiracy turned from a plan of kidnapping to one of murder. A truculent and angry man, Booth hated what he called the president's "northern abolitionism," and considered the declaration of martial law in his home state of Maryland a clear abuse of executive power.
As part of the plan, General Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to attend the performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater on that April evening, but a tiff between his wife, Julia, and Mary Todd Lincoln prevented their attendance. The life of Secretary of State William Seward was saved because of a neck brace he was forced to wear due to a carriage accident; it deflected the blows from the knife held by Booth's accomplice. Another accomplice in the conspiracy who was assigned to kill Vice President Johnson in his Kirkwood House residence made no attempt to do so.
Booth escaped the theater, but was tracked down by soldiers and died of a gunshot wound on 26 April. Four other members of the Lincoln conspiracy, including the first woman to be hanged in the United States, Mary Surratt, were hung on 7 July, a week after being convicted by a military commission. Four others were sentenced to prison, three to life sentences.
One of the most contested convictions was that of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who at first denied knowing who Booth was when he set his ankle, which was broken in his jump from the presidential balcony to the stage on the night of the assassination. Mudd later admitted that he'd met Booth once before. Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island for his involvement in the assassination. He served many years before being pardoned, and the expression "his name was mud" comes from this man's predicament.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the Lincoln Conspiracy?
The Lincoln Conspiracy refers to the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, which was successfully carried out by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. Initially, the plan was to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners, but as the Civil War drew to a close, the scheme shifted to murder. Booth and his co-conspirators aimed to eliminate Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward to destabilize the Union government.
Who were the main conspirators in the Lincoln assassination?
John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer, led the conspiracy. His inner circle included Lewis Powell, who was assigned to kill Secretary of State Seward; George Atzerodt, who was tasked with assassinating Vice President Johnson; and David Herold, who assisted Powell. Mary Surratt, the owner of a boarding house where the conspirators met, was also implicated and later executed for her role in the conspiracy.
How did the Lincoln assassination impact the United States?
The assassination of President Lincoln had profound effects on the United States. It plunged the nation into mourning and altered the course of Reconstruction. Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, lacked Lincoln's political acumen and was less conciliatory toward the South, which led to a more punitive and chaotic Reconstruction era. The assassination also symbolized the deep divisions and animosity that persisted even after the Civil War had ended.
Were any conspirators brought to justice for their roles in the Lincoln assassination?
Yes, several conspirators were brought to justice. Four were executed by hanging on July 7, 1865: Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. Others received prison sentences, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth's broken leg. John Wilkes Booth was killed by Union soldiers on April 26, 1865, during a manhunt, thus evading trial.
What were the long-term consequences of the Lincoln Conspiracy?
The long-term consequences of the Lincoln Conspiracy included heightened security measures for U.S. presidents and a legacy of what-ifs regarding Lincoln's plans for post-war reconciliation. The assassination also entrenched the image of Lincoln as a martyr for the Union and emancipation, solidifying his place as one of America's most revered presidents. The event has been extensively studied by historians, and its impact on American history continues to be a subject of significant interest and debate.